Before Tropical Storm Irma struck Hilton Head Monday, many residents had fled the island. But one visitor showed up to the island in spite of — really, because of — the storm.
This visitor was red, weighed 13,000 pounds, and unlike residents who drove away in their cars, this particular visitor arrived by way of the Atlantic Ocean.
The visitor was a U.S. Coast Guard buoy, lying sideways on a stretch of shore between South Forest and Coligny beaches.
Jacqueline Hayworth, a Hilton Head resident who stuck around through Irma’s Monday thrashing, was not expecting to see the buoy when she walked along the beach after the storm had cleared Tuesday morning.
It was about 10:30 a.m., sunny and unusually cool for the island in September, the beach still nearly empty. Although much of the flooding had receded, debris littered the island. Hayworth was out to see what damage Irma’s wrath had caused — plus, she thought she might find some nice seashells that morning.
Instead, she noticed a light blinking in the distance.
When she got closer, she realized it was a buoy, eight feet wide and 21 feet long. It had a large white No. 8 painted on the pillar up top, the serial number 8S-07-02-UM imprinted on the buoy’s head — and, Hayworth noticed, barnacles attached to the bottom.
Hayworth has lived on Hilton Head for nearly 29 years. She’d endured both Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Matthew last year. But finding a giant buoy stranded on the beach — well, this was a first.
She remembered that her stepson, a member of the Coast Guard in Florida, had once told her about buoys.
“One of his jobs was being a buoy tender, and I said ‘What’s that?’” Hayworth recalled. “And he said, ‘We wash all the barnacles off the buoys so they stay buoyant.’ I knew what it was because of him.”
So, Hayworth got to work. She took a photo of the stranded buoy and headed home to email the Coast Guard.
As it turns out, the Coast Guard had lost a buoy from the mouth of the Port Royal Sound — Buoy No. 8, serial number 8S-07-02-UM. A match.
Tropical Storm Irma, with its winds of 60 miles per hour and strong waves, had hauled the buoy about eight nautical miles to Hilton Head.
It’s not particularly unusual for a buoy to be carried away by heavy winds like Irma’s, said Lt. J.B. Zorn, spokesman for the Coast Guard in Charleston. He said another buoy was carried away during Hurricane Matthew last year.
But traveling buoys are not just a laughing matter. They are traffic signals for water vessels, guiding them to safety in the same way that signals at road intersections guide cars. So although one missing buoy isn’t a crisis, it’s important to get it back home as soon as possible, Zorn said.
Plus, Buoy No. 8 cost about $24,000 — not a particularly light expense.
On Wednesday, a Coast Guard team headed from Charleston to Hilton Head to check it out. They needed to verify that this large red traveler was indeed Buoy No. 8, and they also removed the battery and lantern from the buoy’s top. A blinking lantern in the wrong place might give false information to mariners, and the battery could potentially pollute the beach, Zorn said.
But Wednesday’s crew didn’t take the buoy from Hilton Head. Even a team of a dozen Coast Guard officers wouldn’t be able to lift several thousand pounds.
The buoy’s return journey depends on what resources are available, Zorn said. The Coast Guard might tow it away, but that could damage the environment. Or they could team up with the U.S. Army to load it onto a helicopter and fly it back to the Port Royal Sound, he said.
It may take weeks or even months to take the buoy back home, Zorn said.
For now, that’s good news for those who enjoy a fun photo op. In the two days since it’s been resting on Hilton Head, many beach wanderers have turned Buoy No. 8 into the island’s latest tourist attraction.
And as for Hayworth, she’s simply glad she could help the Coast Guard.
“I just figured they’d wanna know where it was,” Hayworth said.